On an airplane high above Colorado, I finished reading Lang-don Gilkey’s Shantung Compound, an account of the selfish absurdities of some 1,400 merchants, missionaries, engineers, and their families, interned in a Japanese prison camp during World War II. Seat reclining, stomach warm with chicken teriyaki, my mind began to play. Of course I would not be so selfish as those internees. Why, what if a hijacker materialized in the aisle, right now? As an earnest Christian, I would naturally volunteer as a hostage in return for the other passengers’ safety. Possibly I would be shot, but (my imagination was at full gallop) most likely there would be successful, if tense, negotiations. And thereafter, a self-effacing interview with Dan Rather—

The man in the seat next to me was working a crossword puzzle with a stubby pencil that clearly would soon rub too blunt. What if this stranger requested the use of my Pentel mechanical pencil, its inexhaustible lead never more than half a millimeter thick, and that very moment annotating Shantung Compound?

Ego sinking in the mists of the evaporating daydream, I saw myself with clarity. In fantasy, I was prepared to offer my life. In reality, I concocted excuses to spare the lending of my $2 pencil.

Rationalizations are meant to hide unappealing truths from ourselves or others. I picture myself to be what I am not and can limberly blame others or my environment for my lapses. There may be consolation in the fact that, in this, I am no different from anyone since Adam, who said, “The woman you gave me for a companion.”

People are self-interested, and they rationalize about it. But the Bible clearly indicates that Christians are different—allegedly a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17) who, like Jesus, look first to the needs of others (Phil. 2:4).

I say “allegedly,” for considering the tattered history of Christians past and present (myself included), I wonder: Are we really different? Did Christ die and rise from death to any effect?

Laboratories Of The Soul

Gilkey’s Shantung Compound (Harper & Row, 1966) and a more recent but similar book are appropriate shovels for digging into this question. Empire of the Sun (Simon and Schuster, 1984) is an autobiographical novel by science fiction writer J. G. Ballard. Like Gilkey, Ballard survived internment in a Japanese prison camp for non-Chinese civilians living in China.

At the time, Ballard was the adolescent son of a British merchant; Gilkey, an American in his twenties, was a teacher and budding theologian. In their separate camps (Gilkey’s Weihsien, and Ballard’s Lunghua), these writers saw human nature and society reduced to a size manageable for study. Weihsien and Lunghua were laboratories of the soul. Life there, writes Gilkey, “was almost normal, and yet intensely difficult, very near to our usual crises and problems, and yet precarious in the extreme.” Unlike victims in German death camps, these internees were not routinely tortured and killed. “In our internment camp,” Gilkey notes, “we were secure and comfortable enough to accomplish in large part the creation and maintenance of a small civilization.…”

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Gardens were planted. Space-saving devices and clever heating ovens were built. Idled college professors offered lectures on everything from the construction of the pyramids to the weaponry of World War I. The “Lunghua Players” produced Macbeth and The Pirates of Penzance. Weihsien had a “more than passable symphonette of some twenty-two pieces, whose last concert included a full performance (minus violins and tuba) of Mozart’s Concerto in D Minor.”

Yet, to resume Gilkey’s description, “our life was sufficiently close to the margin of survival to reveal the vast difficulties of [building and maintaining a society].… Had our life been more secure, the basic problems of our human lot might not have manifested themselves so clearly.” In these camps men and women were put under pressure, and under pressure revealed their true characters.

There is one more thing to note: Many of those men and women were priests, nuns, and Protestant missionaries—in a word, Christians.


Space, food, and security were basic scarcities that, like tripwires connected to the heart, provoked people to expose their underlying concerns and motivations.

At Lunghua, families were squeezed into the residence halls of a former college. And at Weihsien, about 1,500 men, women, and children were packed into 61 buildings in an area roughly the size of two football fields. In Gilkey’s dormitory, each man had 18 inches between his bed and those on either side.

Food, too, was scarce. At Lunghua: rice, water, and weevils (intentionally consumed for their protein). At Weihsien: potatoes, meat, bread, and sometimes cakes—but rarely enough to quell a nagging hunger. Gilkey and his fellow internees noticed that sexual fantasies were supplanted by imaginings of sweets and sumptuous banquets.

Security was the third scarcity. Although no internees were ordinarily tortured or killed, they never knew what would happen if, say, the Japanese met crushing military defeats. And if the captors did not attack, disease might. Cholera, malaria, and dysentery laid low weakened internees, and medical supplies and treatment were too limited to assure recovery.

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The scarcities of space, food, and security created circumstances in which “no one feigns virtue any longer,” Gilkey observes, “and few aspire to it, for it hurts rather than pays to be good.…”

Creative Self-Interest

Since it did not pay to be good, selfishness fractured even the simplest human relationships. At Weihsien, this happened with Red Cross parcels.

These treasures—containing butter, Spam, cheese, chocolate, sugar, coffee, cigarettes—were first delivered from the American Red Cross in July 1944. American internees shared so that probably every person in the camp (composed of at least four nationalities) got a treat. American generosity was the talk of the compound.

Then another shipment arrived with about 1,500 parcels, seven to eight for every American internee. Or so the Americans calculated. The other internees estimated there was one parcel for each person in camp. The next day, seven Americans petitioned the Japanese commandant, insisting that the parcels be turned over to the American community to distribute the wealth as it chose. In response, the commandant impounded the parcels for leisure to ponder his decision.

Americans remained the talk of the camp. Bitter parents told their expectant children that “the Americans had taken away Santa.”

American self-interest was sometimes straightforward: Yankees contended that the parcels belonged to them. Others presented more sophisticated arguments: An attorney insisted it wasn’t a matter of how many parcels he got. “With me it’s the legal principle that counts.” The parcels were sent by Americans, and so were undeniably American property, the lawyer contended. To preserve principle, the Americans should be “faithful executors” to the donors who sent the food.

That was fancy footwork, but Christians were not to be outdone. One conservative missionary was exercised from a “moral” point of view. If the commandant ordered distribution of the parcels, Americans would lose the free choice to share, and so an opportunity to act morally. “We will share, but not on order from the enemy,” proclaimed this debater, guessing that each American would give away at least two of his seven packages.

Days later, into this shambles of community, a decision descended from Tokyo. One parcel would be given to each internee; the 100 extra, “previously assigned to the Americans,” would be sent to other camps. Thus everyone, Americans especially, ended up with less dearly needed food than if the parcels had been peacefully divided.

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Ironic Armor

The missionary who insisted that the parcels be an opportunity for morality was not unique. Gilkey records many other occasions of pious rationalization. Among them was Mrs. White, whose family occupied two rooms, and who promised to consider prayerfully Gilkey’s request that her two teenage sons move into a dormitory with other teenagers. The next day, Mrs. White’s prayerful resolution was that her and her husband’s first moral responsibility to the camp was to “keep a real American home for our two boys.” So the boys should not go to the dormitory, and the family—coincidentally, of course—should continue to occupy two rooms.

“Granted that home and family are important to everyone,” Gilkey rejoined, “how about the ‘real American home’ of the couple living next door to you, the ones living with two boys in their one room?”

Mrs. White strenuously agreed, “I know—aren’t those Japanese just too wicked for words?”

Gilkey approached a missionary with the same request. This man offered a carefully reasoned reply. “I am asked a good bit by the other missionaries to preach in our church services,” he said. “It is for their sakes, and for that of the camp as a whole, that we need a little extra space in which I can have quiet to think out these sermons.”

The sad irony of these incidents is that Christians, no less than others, are self-interested. If anything, the Christian’s self-interest is at an advantage: he can protect it in the armor of divine sanction.

Looking around him in the camp, Gilkey concluded: “I had learned that men need to be moral, that is, responsibly concerned with their neighbors’ welfare as well as their own, if human community was to be at all possible; equally evident, however, men did not or even could not so overcome their own self-concern to be thus responsible to their neighbor.… And I began to wonder if … man [was] left with a crippling self-contradiction which he could not himself resolve.”

The apostle Paul’s cry echoes across the centuries: “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. What a wretched man I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

There is, fortunately, more to be said about the Christians of Lunghua and Weihsien.

Wearied Saints

Empire of the Sun includes a fascinating and telling scene: Two missionary widows, Mrs. Philips and Mrs. Gilmour, emerge from the hospital, carting a dead body to a small, bizarre cemetery of shallow graves, some with protruding arms and feet.

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Young Jim noticed that the women, “although wearied,” handled the corpse “with the same care they had shown when he was alive.” Jim wondered, “Was he still alive for these two Christian widows?”

His mother and father were agnostics, and Jim in part respected devout Christians merely “for their mastery of an exotic foreign ritual.” But this was not the boy’s only reason for respect: “Those who worked hardest for others, like Mrs. Philips and Mrs. Gilmour and Dr. Ransome, often held beliefs that turned out correct.”

Moments later, Jim talked to Dr. Ransome, a man who “was curiously reluctant to discuss religious topics …, although he himself went to church services on Sunday morning.” Jim reflected on the man’s ingenuity and industry. He labored to exhaustion in the hospital, but his concern for others was ceaseless. Whenever the doctor was “resting,” he melted candles and immersed squares of old cloth in the wax. Cooled, these wax panels replaced broken window panes. Hours of this work kept out freezing winter winds, but few prisoners thanked their benefactor. “Still,” as Jim observed, “Dr. Ransome was not interested in their gratitude.”

Dr. Ransome’s counterpart in Gilkey’s book is Eric Liddell, the Olympic runner portrayed in the film Chariots of Fire. A missionary when imprisoned at Weihsien, Liddell was especially effective in his efforts with restive teenagers, many of whom had resorted to what Gilkey “could only term sexual orgies.”

Rather than unworkable curfews or other strictures, Liddell and other missionaries devised an evening program of entertainment, supervising dances, playing games, and offering science or language lessons. Passing the game room, Gilkey would see “as often as not Eric … bent over a chessboard or a model boat, or directing some sort of square dance—absorbed, warm, and interested, pouring all of himself into this effort to capture the minds and imaginations of those penned-up youths.” This man, “overflowing with good humor and love of life,” impressed Gilkey as the closest to a saint of any man or woman he had known. When Liddell died suddenly of a brain tumor, “the entire camp, especially its youth, was stunned for days.”

The Christians’ willingness to take on repellent though necessary chores surfaced early. Upon arrival, the nearly 2,000 internees found one latrine for women and three for men. Within days, the johns were unspeakably filthy. Nuns and priests, assisted by a few Protestant missionaries, finally tied cloths around their faces, borrowed boots and mops, and waded in.

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As the years of internment proceeded, the missionaries and Catholic religious were often found assisting the elderly, or doing the laundry and watching the children of sick parents. The distinction these men and women earned was evident in the oft-heard comment, “No one but a missionary would have taken on that job!”

At Weihsien as at Lunghua, there were signs of a “new creation.” Certainly it was not only Christians who sacrificed nobly, but Gilkey noticed an other-interest that was a “quality seemingly unique to the missionary group.” In his estimation, “if there were any evidences of the grace of God observable on the surface of our camp existence, they were to be found here.”

Tales Of Hope

Ballard’s and Gilkey’s stories are hopeful. Christians have been different; they can overcome self-interest—certainly not permanently and finally, but consistently and significantly. It may repay us to dwell on the Christians who most consistently evidenced a “new creation.” Their stories say something about self-discipline, character, and the Christian’s resources in overcoming self.

When pressure revealed true character, one group showed a consistent ability to rise above self: the “professionally” religious—priests, monks, nuns, and missionaries. These people were accustomed to daily prayers, routine study of the Scriptures, and living without luxury. As a result, “camp existence with its discomforts, its hard labor, its demand for cheerfulness and a cooperative spirit was merely a continuation of the life to which they were already committed.…”

Men and women who were already self-disciplined best passed the tests of Lunghua and Weihsien. This jibes with the Christian expectation that character does not just happen, but is consciously developed. The camps are reminders that character may be conspicuous in crises, but it is built day-to-day amidst ordinary undertakings. The camps underline the importance of spiritual disciplines (such as fasting, almsgiving, and corporate worship) that help draw us away from ourselves.

But important as self-discipline is, the stories of Lunghua and Weihsien show that character ultimately comes from outside people. In Gilkey’s judgment, “The rare power of selflessness, what we call true ‘morality’ or ‘virtue,’ arises only when a life finds its ultimate devotion to lie beyond itself, thus allowing that person in times of crisis to forget his own concerns and to be free to love and help his neighbor.”

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The experiences of the camp intimate that resources—especially the basics, food, space, and security—are a key to the character of people. Some who were prominent professionals and socialites before the camps showed much less character once they were hungry, crowded, and insecure. Their character, such as it was, apparently depended on three square meals a day, plenty of private space, and an assurance they would have them all tomorrow.

The Christians who overcame self-interest were no less hungry, crowded, or insecure. But they depended on a resource other than food, space, or physical security. To the degree they overcame self-interest, they were dependent on the God who is “rich enough for the need of all who invoke him” (Rom. 10:12, NEB).

We can summarize their attitudes and behavior in biblical terms. By giving up self to Christ, they gained all things in him (1 Cor. 3:22–23). And since they could never be separated from Christ (Rom. 8:32), nothing could ultimately threaten their resources. So freed, they set their minds on God’s kingdom, peace, and justice, trusting that all necessary things would come to them as well (Matt. 6:33–34).

Interestingly, Christ promised resources that correspond to the scarcities of the camps. He offered himself as living bread and wine (food), promised room in his father’s house (space), and insisted anxiety could end in trust of the same father (security).

These “resources,” of course, are to be understood in a spiritual sense. Yet they are real and manifest visible results. As Gilkey wrote after the hardships of Weihsien, “To be aware of our contingency, of the mortality of all we love and value, and yet to love life and act creatively in it, requires a deeply rooted sense of the ultimate goodness and meaningfulness of life.” Such goodness and meaningfulness, perhaps, might be found in a father who cares for us more than we do for our own children. This is a goodness and meaningfulness detected only in grace, with a Christian vision.

The Christian vision does not deny the corruption and dismal limits of self. It knows, furthermore, that suffering and death are inescapable, that life is difficult. But the Christian vision sees further to know that living is “not a matter of a greater demand, but of a greater supply, a bigger gospel, a broader grasp of what grace wants to do and already has done by calling persons to return to be God’s children” (John Howard Yoder).

And so we Christians are a “new creation,” the strange people who find life in the limits the world flees, who surrender to something beyond ourselves. We are, finally, the people who live by surprise and “out of control”—by the surprising gifts of God and in his control.

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